This operatically gifted play, one loved by many, is one I had vowed to never see again. In all honesty. Not because I don’t believe it to be a formidable masterpiece, one with grand illusions, high theatrics, and opportunities for magnificent performances from almost every angle, but I just don’t think I can do it again. After watching the latest Broadway revival in 2016 starring Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, and Michael Shannon, and the revival that was shipped over from England to play at BAM in 2018 starring Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, I thought to myself, quite clearly, this has to be the last time. Blasphemy, I know.
Even when superbly done, and those two were superb productions, the play can be a slog, sometimes succumbing to boring repetition. It seems they just repeat and repeat the same rounds of attacks on one another, scene after scene. It’s a deafening game, attack and retreat; attack and retreat, leaving them all so badly bruised from the same old sharp repeated stabs that we, sometimes, feel as battered as the characters on stage. We can totally relate to their frustration. We also become aware, that they simultaneously also want to protect and show affection when opportunities present themselves; mostly when they are feeling insecure and in need.
That insecurity happens often in Eugene O’Neill’s famous “play of old sorrow“. They need each other even when attacking. But here, sitting at the cozy Minetta Lane Theatre holding tight onto my theatrical optimist card, pleading with the theatre gods to not prove me misguided, I held on, as I had made a bargain with myself. If they could succeed and find a way to condense this tense tragedy into something more digestible, then I was in. Or at least willing to give it another solid try. And when I heard that they had edited the overly long masterpiece into a two hour, one-act play, taking place over just one summer day, the day that the family realizes Mary, the mother, has relapsed and the youngest son, Edmund gets his upsettingly bad news diagnosis, I gave in, and thought, wisely or not, I should be game to give it a go. And boy, am I (mostly) glad I did.
The blame game at the heart of this drama flies strong and clear in this Audible-produced version directed with a tight grip by Robert O’Hara (NYTW/Broadway’s Slave Play). The slicing block to make it a one-acter has required many a daring adjustment, focusing in on the action and collapsing the time frame down to something more manageable and forceful. The drama is more condensed, taking us through in, what would be called, a quick two hours (for anyone who has a familiarity with the play, that is a feat). They have contemporized the setting to 2020 and placed it most solidly inside a lockdown and a pandemic. The idea sizzles inside our soul, making us excited to see how it adds flavor to the mass, and although never completely justified, the ideas and slant haven’t hurt the fundamentals of the play. The morbid poetry still plays out, even amongst the eliminations and the piles of unnecessary Amazon boxes and Clorox wipes strewn around the room. (It really felt a bit too commercialized, Audible, I must say.)
Fascinatingly, the modern setting doesn’t give the hours much more depth. It does give it some clarity through a few different lenses, and with O’Hara’s colorblind casting the formulations carry different points and angles that accentuate the complicated arrangements that all four have been living within. The disappointment and angry resentment of one another hang heavy on that stage, designed with an overzealous flair by Clint Ramos (Broadway’s Grand Horizons), who is also credited with the costuming, with lighting by Alex Jainchill (Off-Broadway’s Mankind), and a weird but wonderful sound design by Palmer Hefferan (Public’s Wild Goose Dreams). As it should, and the actors find a complementary engagement with each other that feels fresh and alive, even as they discuss the darkness and anger in a dope fiend’s curse. But it doesn’t always deliver, much like many an Amazon order.
The cast of four unpacks enough evidence that this tearing apart of the original text does the job, even when flailing and faulting. Bill Camp (Broadway’s The Crucible) finds a fierce fury in his masterful approach to James, with Elizabeth Marvel (Broadway’s King Lear) unleashing her own deconstruction with epic fortitude. The two together are expert fencers, finding surprise and disappointed frustration inside the simplest of stabs. The two sons; Jason Bowen (PH’s If Pretty Hurts…) as the louder than typical James Jr., and the wonderful Ato Blankson-Wood (LCT’s The Rolling Stone) as the weakened Edmund, also find their way, but the kids are left a little out of the loop in the reinvention, never really given as much to work with inside the text, and never really given as much meat to chew on within the family
The drama of the Tyrones was one that was barely disguised from the playwright’s own, giving us a secret view inside of a troubled past. It’s a pretty infectious playwright formulation; a family fueled by repetitive drunk accusations and self-delusions ignited by insecurity and anger, pushed forward by addiction and disease. No one is really there for one another, even when they pretend to care and are in need. The modernization rampages that energy forward, bringing the four together for confessions of troubling truths, and then dutifully letting them tear into the other with gusto.
The equating of Edmund’s tuberculosis to COVID and Mary’s addiction to the modern-day opioid crisis strains the structure a bit but ultimately maps, but in regards to the connections with their sons, the modernized text leaves the two young men a bit left out, with not as much to engage with. It’s a shame as both Bowen and the wonderful Blankson-Wood unearth interpersonal connections to each other and their parents that glisten with anticipatory glee, and the conflictual dynamics are both new and insightful. But as the play progresses to its fatalistic end, the rewrite hits some snags that don’t register as well, especially around the family’s medical issues, leaving us accepted some holes, mainly because we want this condensed version to work.
The thematic focus on Edmund in the latter half, and his precarious emotional, physical, and mental health, don’t hold us as tight as his parents’ complicated dynamics. The brothers come together but as Jamie steps his support away from Edmund, the production falters, feeling a bit lost in the mist and fog. O’Hara seems to know more about James Sr. and Mary’s tense engagement than what is to be done with the sons’ involvement in the finale, despite the hard work Blankson-Wood and Bowen attempt to deliver.
Some of the design ideas heighten the emotional choices made. Showering the walls with projected visualizations of skeletal half-corpses and psychedelic graphics work a certain type of magic, helping us dive into the world of addiction and drug use, thanks to the fine visual work of projection designer Yee Eun Nam (BayStreet Theater’s Frankenstein), and although the projected artwork seems to be from another world altogether, the more abstract constructions are a relief to the nonstop bullying that is going on downstairs.
Had I made the right call? Yes, most assuredly. The cast is determined and wonderfully inventive, especially as they don’t accept the tried and true arrangements of this family. They have found a new way of seeing through the fog, and for that creative engagement, I am eternally grateful. It reminded me of the tense complications that exist in this masterpiece. Now, will I ever watch another full-length production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I’d like to say no, but I have a feeling my optimist call will draw me back into the fog, one more time, and then another.